The Road to Regionals – Magical Hack: Dispelling the Beatdown Metagame Myth

Magic the Gathering Regionals!

In the fourth of today’s Premium “Road to Regionals” articles, Sean shares his opinions on the coming metagame. While conservative opinion claims that Aggro and Beatdown will be the prevalent metagame theme across the board, Sean isn’t so sure… Will there be an upsurge of Control options, led by the all-powerful Azorius guild?

Year after year, the same assumptions are presented with each new format. The simple belief is that in a completely unknown format, the early development will feature the rise of beatdown decks, as those decks are the easiest to “get right” without needing to learn the rest of the context of the format. After all, so long as you focus on accomplishing what you need to do and doing it as fast or as aggressively as you can, the deck will probably do about what it’s supposed to do. And more complex decks have to fit into the context of the metagame, which is as yet unwritten, so a lot of people will potentially be stepping off cliffs by trying to balance their controlling deck to “control” the right aspects of the metagame. Those who pick aspects that actually appear, or actually exist, do well. Those who choose to focus on aspects that do not appear, or were never really worth paying attention to in the first place, usually face-plant their deck into the pavement sometime between round 2’s conclusion and round 4’s start.

A common misconception has been thoroughly pervading the steps leading up to Regionals, from bulletin-board posters, to Premium article writers, to the full-blast propaganda machines that want you to prepare for the wrong metagame so they can take the blue envelope (or whatever color envelope an invitation to the U.S. National Championships comes in). That misconception is that everything is drastically different because we have Dissension cards, and in an unknown format the prevalence is for beatdown decks to appear. It’s distinctly possible that we will be looking at a beatdown-heavy format, but if we are it will be because of the right reasons, rather than the wrong assumption that beatdown is easier so beatdown gets tuned first.

The first mis-truth is that that we are entering into a completely unknown and undeveloped format. On a certain level this is true, certainly, but the addition of Dissension looks to be doing a lot less overall for the types and quality of decks available to be played than the addition of Guildpact did upon the Ravnica-based metagame. Certainly, some of these decks will see play, but the question is simply: what do they do that you cannot already do with other color combinations? We already have a reasonably broad metagame, though there are arguments for a very few “best” decks thanks to the post-Honolulu metagame being played to death on MTGO and during the Team Standard season. Will a Blue-White control deck really resemble something vastly different than a Wafo-Tapa U/R Control deck, or its predecessor the U/B Jushi Blue deck? Certainly some of the tools are different, but in the end the song remains the same…

A lot of theoretical groundwork has been put forward in the weeks since the Dissension pre-release, and they have eventually birthed three significant new deck styles, one for each color: Blue/White Control, Blue/Green Aggro-Control, and Black/Red Hellbent Aggro. Each has, of course, been thoroughly investigated to see where it might fit in with the supposed “metagame” we were already aware of, and solid conclusions can be formed about all of them and put them neatly in their place. Examining these three critical changes, and updating to see what effect overall you can expect on the shifting metagame, is the key to success… and the key to not walking into Regionals blindly assuming that what you thought was true last week will hold true on Saturday.

Black/Red Aggro is interesting, and absolutely ridiculous when the Hellbent trick works and Delirium Skeins into Jagged Poppet rips you a new one, but in all the ways that really matter it’s just a worse deck than the Black/White aggressive decks packing discard and elimination, be it Hand in Hand or Ghost Husk. The inherent dangers of going Hellbent leaves the mechanic as a whole a cost-benefit problem, mitigating the risks of going all-in on the table against the potential need to recover after your opponent blows everything away with a single Wrath of God.

What Black/Red has to offer is the danger of its aggressive creatures matched with burn, but that’s nothing new, and Red paired with Green makes a better case for that strategy anyway. Black/Red’s key card that requires both of those colors and rewards you for the potentially dangerous play that comes with their lifestyle is Rise / Fall, with the nearest reprint of Hymn to Tourach you will likely ever see. Even the “fair” Hymn still isn’t particularly fair, even if the random discard is made less painful by whiffing on lands. Along with that you get Jagged Poppet, who hits for three times as many cards as Hypnotic Specter and is an impressive 3/4 for three, just like the ten-dollar-plus Burning-Tree Shaman. However, for just one more the following turn, an Okiba-Gang Shinobi can guarantee it will hit two cards with a lot less work, which just seems better… so even the cards best intended to fit its strategy can be found outside of Dissension, and in this case can even be played without requiring Red mana.

Rakdos will certainly be played, they’re the new kids on the block, and the Rakdos Augermage certainly does give reason to play Black and Red together even if he’s not as explosive as Jagged Poppet. Gaining the ability to lock down the game quickly (and, surprisingly, permanently) against controlling strategies and combos that require cards in hand like the Heartbeat deck, Rakdos Augermage will earn himself a dedicated following for Regionals. If anything there will probably be more of them than the quality of the deck warrants. But for those who go looking to it for one thing, they will most likely find another, and end up going back to two of the top decks coming out of the Team PTQ season: Heezy Street or Black/White Aggro.

The Cards To Fear

Blue/White didn’t get a chase guild uncommon like Putrefy, Mortify, or Lightning Helix, but instead got the pleasure of splitting that one two-color power uncommon into two one-color power uncommons, one costing a single Blue and one costing a single White. The hype behind Spell Snare is real, and for good reason: two-mana spells remain some of the most important cards in the format, with Mana Leak, Remand and Muddle the Mixture weighing in at two mana for the countermagic suite, an entire host of quality aggressive creatures like Dark Confidant sitting nicely in the two-drop, and the Kamigawa-defining pair of Umezawa’s Jitte and Sakura-Tribe Elder also conveniently sitting in the two slot. Early consideration for Regionals saw Spell Snare being considered for its broader applications across the board, starting out in peoples’ sideboards and taking up more and more slots in the maindeck as playtesting progresses. I for one started with four in the main for my Blue/White Control list, and have yet to regret a single one. The second uncommon, of course, costs just a single White, because you’re cutting a U/W uncommon in half, and that is Condemn. Condemn may not answer all problems, because it does require an attacking creature to have any use at all, but for just a single mana it answers an awful lot of problems. This may not be Swords to Plowshares, but it’s as close as you can honestly expect to get these days, and for a deck focused on defending itself and maintaining a high life total this is excellent.

It’s obviously true that any Blue-based control deck can use Spell Snare if they want to, so the question is what has Blue/White gained that sets it apart? On the one hand, you can easily start with a successful model like Wafo-Tapa Control or Jushi Blue and port it over directly to a U/W build, upgrading its creature sanction elements to include some assortment of Condemn, Faith’s Fetters, and Wrath of God as it suits you. Where success has been before, so it can still remain, because a lot of elements are interchangeable across colors. Blue/White has mostly gained from the plentiful assortment of cheap creatures that could help make a Blue/White aggro-tempo deck hum, but again: anything you want to do with a deck of that variety is probably best done with a different color combination, either as a White/Red deck looking to gain some direct damage to finish off the opponent, or with the stronger synergy of the Blue-Green aggro-control deck.

Blue/White may still be an excellent answer to the format as a whole, but most of the people who play it will be focusing on its supposed excellent advantage over aggressive decks everywhere, instead of being cognizant of the actual metagame inherited by the results that followed in the wake of Pro Tour: Honolulu.

Blue/Green is a trickier beast, because there seems at first to be a wide array of things you can accomplish with that color combination. First and foremost is an aggro-control Blue/Green strategy (most recently) pioneered by Michael J. Flores and known nowadays as “Critical Mass.” Where Blue and White fail to put together anything more interesting than a weenie race deck lightly backed up by countermagic, Blue and Green provide for a more robust deck, one able to present the foil to the opponent’s strategy and plan their game accordingly. Blue/Green makes the grade based on their ability to focus on spell control, use those cheap and efficient counterspells to gain tempo thanks to solid creatures with good synergy, and top it all off against opposing creature decks with the ridiculous creature control element known as Umezawa’s Pointy Stick of Doom. That they also can control the opponent’s Jittes, and the opponent’s answers to their Jittes, means that this is a deck with frightening potential against other creature decks that can be very dominant at setting a clock and backing it up against control and combo decks. It’s not quite the new Fish deck, but if you put your beer goggles on just right it’ll do, pig, it’ll do.

This also comes from the color combination that is able to assemble Life from the Loam and Trade Routes off Gifts Ungiven, giving it some wicked potential for long-game exhaustion strategies if the environment allows for such things to work. Its Extended analogue was, in many ways, the best deck when all was said and done, but it also had fewer vulnerable moving parts: the lands cycled themselves, instead of leaving an Enchantment in play that can be destroyed or worse yet named with Pithing Needle. You can mix your Blue and Green anywhere from aggro-control to dedicated control, depending on what deck speed you are looking for. However, the true control strategy is likely overwhelmed by other, more effective control strategies, such as you might get by pairing Blue with, well, any other color in the game of Magic.

Yawg is my hero

So the one clear new addition brought about by the addition of Dissension is a deck that existed already in some form or another, be it as Critical Mass or Critical Mass Redux or Critical Mass Evolution or even very briefly as Sea Stompy at Honolulu. Red/Black exists, but its role previously existed as one of either B/W Aggro or Heezy Street, both of which were among the top contenders in the previous metagame. Blue/White exists, but its role previously existed as one of either W/R Weenie or R/U Control, most likely of the Wafo-Tapa variety. And Blue/Green exists, but then it did before with worse mana and didn’t make very much of an impact. Of the three, Blue/Green’s advancement is the most relevant, and so the impact of decks utilizing the synergy of the Blue/Green Dissension cards are going to have a stable niche in the metagame absent of previously-existing decks from the post-Honolulu metagame.

Which leaves us right back where we began: wondering what is actually going to happen in Standard now that we have added Dissension to the metagame. At least now we have tried to think our way through the thought-puzzle of Dissension, instead of blindly assuming that the format will be filled with aggro decks, oh noes!

So, let’s buckle down and see where we left off at the end of the team PTQ season:

When last we paid attention to the decks populating the elimination rounds of Team Standard PTQs, we saw four key decks leading the pack: Heezy Street, Ghost Husk, Heartbeat, and Magnivore. Two of these are dedicated aggressive decks, with different focuses and very different means of threatening the opponent. The other two are thoroughly divorced from that strategy, with the mana-control Magnivore deck combining the best aspects of the Owling Mine strategy with an actual game against aggressive decks, and the Heartbeat deck also able to “race” to a turn 5 kill but attacking through a combo-kill engine that churns up 23 mana and targets the opponent for 20.

So the key four players at this upcoming Regionals will likewise start with these four decks, and compensate for the Dissension changes accordingly. Additional metagame strategies appeared throughout the Team Standard season, mainly due to the testing engine of Flores et al. churning out an effective Green-White strategy that can hang with the big boys and the development of niche decks to target aspects of the developing metagame. Decks like Red-White (again, a Flores creation), Wafo-Tapa Control, Izzetron (with or without Wildfire), and Black-Green-White Control surged up and down in popularity as their angle of attack on the metagame waxed and waned, proving that there are several key contenders even after the Big Four became established.

Admittedly, out of these decks you will see room for aggressive strategies, and a reasonable percentage of players is going to select a deck from the aggressive corner of the field. Heezy Street remained popular throughout the Team Standard season, proving that it had the staying power to flourish in the metagame despite the initial influx of Ghost Dad decks and its lack of disruption against Heartbeat. Red-White and Green-White will be remembered by those who keep an eye locked on Michael J. Flores and Top Eight Magic when considering what they should play at any given moment in Standard. But even more important is the fact that Ghost Husk seems to be the final evolution of Black-White aggressive strategies in this metagame, thanks to its ability to take down Heartbeat decks consistently in addition to its power and synergy as an aggressive deck. There will be a solid percentage of players banking on the ease and simplicity of Heezy Street carrying them through numerous rounds at Regionals, but a significantly larger percentage of players will consider Black-White aggressive strategies to be their starting point. Of those who previously ascribed to Black-White decks thanks to their heavy discard elements, some will instead turn to Rakdos-based strategies in an attempt to use Jagged Poppet, Rix Maadi, Rise / Fall, and Rakdos Augermage to their full potential and create a truly nightmarish discard package for control and combo decks.

And then there will be those who diverge from the realm of a homogeneous Black/White deck, to play Hand in Hand or even more rarely to battle with Ghost Dad. Hand in Hand presents many of the advantages of conventional Black-White decks against Heartbeat and Heezy Street without committing to all of the same card choices, while a tuned version of Ghost Dad can have (post-sideboard) game against Heartbeat but focus very nicely on winning against other Black-White decks and demolishing most other aggressive strategies.

A reasonable core contingent will start with Black-based aggro decks packing discard. Most of those who are savvy will play Ghost Husk, as will a reasonable percentage that don’t know quite what they are doing but find themselves more or less capable of following the trends of deck development over the Internet in the past two months. A smaller group will probably just play a variant that looks more like Antoine Ruel “Hand in Hand” deck, and an equally sized group will probably play Rakdos Aggro instead of the Black-White decks they had been playing in the previous Standard season of team PTQs. A very small fraction will play Ghost Dad; most people will consider them to be very much so wrong to do so, and the small presence of Ghost Dad will vindicate that opinion in the minds of many while the actual performance of the Ghost Dad deck will likely be much better than expected.

My deckbuilding efforts during the team PTQ season showed that Ghost Dad could still keep up, and at the end of the pre-Dissension team PTQ season in New York City we saw Ghost Dad as the only aggressive-based strategy to penetrate into the Top 8 of the Deckade Tournament at Neutral Ground. The metagame at that point was reasonably advanced, and the players more or less “in the know” as far as what was going on in Standard… but still, out of the aggressive strategies present (which included Flores R/W, Flores Ghazi-Chord, Heezy Street, and Ghost Husk in addition to Ghost Dad) it was the tuned and updated Ghost Dad deck that made the cut to elimination rounds.

Some large percentage of the Heezy Street players will stay with the deck that has done them well, while a smaller percentage will be tempted to keep their burn cards and switch Green for the powerful disruption of the Cult of Rakdos. Overall they will be threatening group of opponents, as Heezy Street is a very redundant deck that thoroughly punishes poor draws, and sometimes just punishes the fact that you went second, regardless of how good your draw is. Between these two camps, Heezy Street and Black-White, you have two very strong decks that put up excellent numbers during the Team PTQ season, and overall more than a few people will be happy to make a choice starting with these two decks for this weekend. Between them and their offshoot decks (R/W, G/W Ghazi-Chord, Zoo and Rakdos) you may very well see beatdown as up to 50% of the metagame, after you squeak in a few players who decide to try and game with Pride of the Clouds and the beatdown Azorius cards.

On the other half of the divide, we have Magnivore and Heartbeat. Magnivore has two key problems… the first being that it has a hard time winning beatdown matchup after beatdown matchup, especially when some of those decks are going to be trying to hold the fort with Paladin en-Vec. Three-toughness Red and Green men can be a problem if you have to face them round after round, after all. The second problem is one that isn’t being discussed, as far as I can see, and that is the change in the Magnivore versus Control matchup that comes about because of Spell Snare. Spell Snare changes the dynamics of the game incredibly, because Magnivore is a mana-denial deck with key two-mana plays (Mana Leak, Remand, Eye of Nowhere, Boomerang) that are readily answered by a one-mana counterspell. That one-mana counterspell means that the Boomerang into Stone Rain draw can now be met by two consecutive counterspells, buying Blue decks the chance to get their third land into play on their third turn when drawing first. If that’s not a nightmare for Magnivore, I don’t know what is; the deck focuses on removing lands from play before the opponent can stop them, and then running away with the time advantage to do more and more with that initial mana gap. That there is now a card that not only stops the two-mana play but can defend later plays from any and all countermagic you’ll see out of the Magnivore deck for just one blue mana is devastating. Where before it was easy to say that control matches were to the Magnivore deck’s advantage, Spell Snare turns that all on its ear.

Many pundits have been turning around to say that with the rise of Black/White decks to heights of popularity, Heartbeat is dead. Instead it seems that thanks to the printing of Spell Snare that Magnivore is dead, because it doesn’t have any truly good matchups against any of the remaining “Big Three” decks, and it isn’t anywhere near as good as it was a few weeks ago against Blue-based control decks. Heartbeat, however, is still alive and kicking. Technology advances relentlessly forward, and Heartbeat gains the option of benefiting from split cards in Dissension.

For the Heartbeat deck, Bound / Determined is a solid candidate for inclusion, as it allows Heartbeat to test-spell the opponent before starting its combo chain. Effectively Heartbeat is now capable of casting Abeyance prior to going off… just what we needed for our mana-engine combo deck. Research / Development offers the option of gaining access to more tools game 1, or recovering from Cranial Extraction when that comes up, and isn’t so bad when you cast Development either. Three three-power guys means that out of nowhere you’ve got a strong clock, that you can back up with your Muddles and Remands and what-have-you… so it’s likely to draw you some cards, very possibly more than one, while it also does something else. But the real money comes from Crime / Punishment, which very easily fills the spot previously occupied by Boomerang in order to kill things that need to be dead. Punishment kills all the Pithing Needles, all the Ivory Masks, so no longer do you have to Boomerang at end of turn, cast Recollect and use Boomerang again to win against two copies of the same problem permanent. Coincidentally it’s also just randomly good against beatdown decks, meaning you can complement your Pyroclasm with a second mass-removal spell… and sometimes you’ll just draw one at the right time, now that you have twice as many of them to sometimes randomly draw.

Of the other “Big Four” decks, the only one Heartbeat really has a consistent problem with is Black/White Aggro. Fast beats plus hand disruption is not the Heartbeat deck’s friend, and the Ghost Husk players know it. Because of this you can expect the leading aggressive deck to be Ghost Husk, to try and squeeze Heartbeat decks out of existence, and that notion will scare off at least a few. However, it didn’t get to be the winningest deck in Team Standard by not having any game against a gaping blind spot, so those who have gotten to be very good with the deck in the past two months will likely play it anyway… and there are more of those people than you might realize. A lot of theories about Regionals so far have been saying that Heartbeat will be barely played at all, despite being the best deck as reckoned by numerous writers and playtesting cabals. All of those theories are wrong, because the deck is good and its “worst” matchup is still reasonably winnable for those who play tight or who come prepared… and it is the deck that can get you out of the situations when your back is against the wall and everyone watching shakes their heads and walk away.

Other control decks will be present, such as Wafo-Tapa Control and Critical Mass, now streamlined to play in a format that no longer says dropping your pants and playing the Dragon is the correct play for Blue decks after turn 5. Both can have a solid game against Heartbeat and keep up with the beatdown decks, and for Regionals all you’re really looking for is a deck that has solid game, maybe some key matchup advantages, and isn’t going to be starting down incredibly difficult matchups all day. Blue/White Control is also viable, if not better than viable, as it can readily template itself to match the play of previous winning strategies like Jushi Blue / “A Stake Through The Heart(beat)” to find itself a niche that already exists, but with more powerful creature sanction elements like Condemn and Wrath of God. The control side of the metagame will be a wide-open smattering of solid decks, both with and without counterspells, as people try out G/W/U Control (“Counter-Post” is what some people have chosen to call it), just plain G/U Critical Mass, W/U Control, B/W/G Beach House Control, Greater Gifts, and everything up to and including the kitchen sink.

In conclusion: Beatdown will be present in varied forms at Regionals, and will likely contain the most-represented deck archetype, Ghost Husk. Beatdown decks of various stripes could compose up to 50% of your area metagame, but of course this is more likely to be the number for the overall average played this weekend rather than a hard and fast promise about what will show up in your neighborhood. Heartbeat decks will be present and making short work of the unprepared, as will Heezy Street, and a fair smattering of control decks of varying quality will likewise be putting in an appearance. Magic is at full bloom, for we have a varied metagame where literally any color combination or strategy is perfectly viable, but the trends still suggest that what was the best before may very well still be the best…

… Or perhaps just an excellent starting point to attack.

Sean McKeown
[email protected]